Sunday, March 20, 2016

Joyce Maynard is Under the Influence

I read an editorial by Joyce Maynard in the paper a few weeks back ( and was reminded, once again, why I've been drawn to her writing for so long. If there's a certain sense of melancholy throughout most of her work, one need only read her memoir "At Home in the World," to understand why. Considered controversial when it first came out, Maynard recalls the year that she spent at a vulnerable stage in her life, living with, (under the influence of), the reclusive writer J. D. Salinger, who was thirty years her senior.

I found that the title of her latest book, "Under the Influence," actually pretty accurately describes a good portion of her life as a woman working very hard to climb out from under other people's influence.

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If you happened to see the Kate Winslet film, Labor Day, based on Maynard's novel of the same name, then you'll remember the theme, sort of a Stockholm Syndrome effect, where a captive falls "under the influence" of her captor. No surprise, the book was much more believable and suspenseful, a credit to Maynard's talent as a writer.
Returning to this convention, Maynard has turned out a truly disquieting novel, in which the danger facing Helen, our very unlucky protagonist, creeps up on the reader slowly but inexorably, so that we're never sure from whence it will come or how it will manifest itself. Yet there's no doubt that it's always bubbling under the surface.
Helen, a single mom, loves her son Ollie to distraction. So it's all the more difficult to read the chapters in which she loses custody of her boy to a vindictive ex after an episode that involves too much alcohol and no friends to count on in a pinch. It could have happened to anybody, and the punishment seems outsize to the crime, but it sets us up to root for Helen's recovery and redemption.
And suddenly her luck changes. When Ava and Swift Havilland take an inordinate interest in Helen, it's almost as if she's one of their many rescue dogs. They employ her, they try to remake her over in their image, revamping her clothes, her style, her sense of self. They make her feel indispensable to their life, plying her with personal questions while revealing little if anything about their own provocative marriage. And then they hold out the carrot.
Maybe their high powered lawyer can work on her custody case as a favor. After all, since she introduced Ollie to the Havillands, the tension of the former visits between mother and son has disappeared. Ollie is enchanted with Swift, a man who rarely seems to work but has money to burn and nothing but time to shower on a kid who's desperate for attention. But we keep worrying, what's the stick?
This suspenseful novel is also psychologically astute. Maynard must have learned early on, the power of observation. Helen is a photographer. She sees people more clearly through a lens. In fact, a camera will play a large role in the denouement of this compelling story of an insecure woman who learns through trial and error to value herself above all.

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